Friday, October 26, 2012

Gone but not forgotten -- Katherine Shepard

Katherine Shepard,Kingsburg, California 2004

Katherine Shepard was a member of the Texas Coalition of Authors, Writer's League of Texas, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of America and Kiss of Death, but when she died in 2006 it was if she had dropped off the face of the earth.

What was worse, it was as if she had never been here at all. Her web site came down immediately. There was no place to go for tributes, or even for news of her death and her survivors. The multi-talented, multi-tasking Katherine had a bio that boggles the mind and she had just begun a new career as a mystery writer, but today she’s barely a blip on Google.

When Jenny Hanahan and I talked about this on Jenny’s Facebook forum, Mystery Most Cozy,  she said she had just read the blog I posted at Murderous Musings in 2009. I looked it up for a re-read, which brought back a flood of good memories. Katherine was a bright spirit and a barrel of fun to know.

I have a few snapshots from 2004 and they, too, bring back a flood of good memories. Here they are – photos, and my blog dated August 1, 2009.
Summer Shorts: The Way We Were
By Pat Browning

Katherine admires mural on Kingsburg Library outside wall. 
May 20, 2004
Rolling down the highway on a moonless night, hugging a white line to nowhere. Nothing on either side except shades of Black and Empty. Ahead and behind, the lights of long-haul trucks, drivers trying to get the hell out of California before fuel prices took another jump …

The distance between Katherine Shephard’s library program in one little town to her motel in another little town was about 15 miles, 20 max, but it’s easy to get lost on country roads at night. Cotton fields on one side of a two-laner, vineyards on the other, irrigation ditches waiting to reach out and pull you in. We made one wrong turn after another, but finally found that old workhorse, Highway 99, and headed south to find a road going west, laughing all the way.

“Thelma and Louise, Part Deux,” Katherine said.



Pat Browning and Katherine after Kingsburg Library program.

Meeting people is part of the fun of belonging to the mystery community. I first met that bright spirit Katherine Shephard when we did a signing together at the Foster City Library in San Francisco’s Bay Area on October 7, 2003.

The appearance was arranged by PJ Nunn’s Breakthrough Promotions. The librarian made a poster on butcher paper and taped it to a sandwich board. “Mystery Tuesdays,” the sign said. “Meet up and coming mystery writers …”

After our program Katherine took the poster down, gave it to me and said, "I keep things like this around my computer to remind me of happy times." I still have the poster. One of these days I'll find a frame big enough and hang it behind my computer.

Katherine and Deni Dietz, Left Coast Crime Monterey

We met again on February 21, 2004 at Left Coast Crime in Monterey. Katherine was just getting started in her career as a mystery writer. She had written two novels in what was to be a series. In FRATERNITY OF SILENCE and BETRAYED BY SILENCE she blended romantic comedy and mystery, with politics as the backdrop.

Though she wrote about political corruption, her books are warm-hearted, even cozy. Newlyweds Beth and Bob Larken are a delightful couple, devoted to each other and a feisty little dog named Bowie Aloysia Dog, or B.A.D. for short. Katherine carried a toy version of B.A.D. to all her appearances.

She spent much of 2004 on the road promoting her books. I was delighted when she let me know she had scheduled a program at the library in Kingsburg, a small town near Fresno. I lived close by in Hanford, so she picked me up for dinner and then we tooled off to Kingsburg in her little red car.

Katherine really connected with an audience, and it came naturally. She was “on stage” for most of her life in the worlds of entertainment and politics. Her technique was to speak quietly. Plainly, but quietly. Chit-chat simmered down and before long you could have heard a pin drop, except for the sound of Katherine’s voice. The audience seemed to lean forward as one, so as not to miss anything she was saying.

As usual, she charmed everyone. And as usual, she got a variation of the question: "How did you make the leap from writing political speeches to writing fiction?" She took a beat and said, "What leap?"

It cracked us up and led her into the story of “the mole in the hole,” or how she got the idea for her mystery series from overheard conversations in the women's restroom at a political convention. She called her fiction “faction” -- fact-based fiction.

Katherine packed a lot into her too-short life. Here are bio highlights still posted at Murder Express:

“Author Katherine Shephard was born and raised in Northwest Detroit, Michigan. She is a graduate of Michigan State University with a degree in Criminal Justice. After graduation she moved to east Grand Rapids where she worked in criminal law. Her involvement in politics began during those years in Grand Rapids when she volunteered for several campaigns in 1976. She has been involved in politics and writing ever since, winning a Christian speech contest that led to her addressing the UN in New York on the role of youth in world affairs.

“Her writing career began in kindergarten when she would tell her mother to ‘grab a pencil and write down this story.’ Those stories would always involve a puppy and usually a princess. She also began entertaining at a young age. She sang and danced her way onto local Michigan television as well as the national arena during the Tournament of Roses in 1969.

“That same year she traveled to Europe with Youth Understanding, as well as playing violin with the Scandinavian Symphony across the United States. For relaxation and entertainment, Ms. Shephard still plays the piano and violin. Music has played a major role in her life and deep throughout her novel, ‘Fraternity of Silence.’”

Impressive as all that is, my favorite memory of Katherine will always be of the wild ride through the Central Valley boonies and down Highway 99, laughing all the way. She died two years later from a rare form of cancer, but she is remembered fondly and with pleasure.

FRATERNITY OF SILENCE, published in paperback by Seven Locks in 2003 is only available from re-sellers.
From the Publisher: “There's a dead body in the dome and nobody's talking. Silence your questions. Silence your love. Silence the truth. You've just joined the Fraternity of Silence. Engrossing and exciting with lots of action, Fraternity is fact-paced, romantic, and suspenseful from the opening scene to the last page. Texas Lt. Governor William Glinnis is found dead at his desk and no one is asking how it happened. Will the truth be silenced?”

BETRAYED BY SILENCE, published in hardcover by Seven Locks in 2004, is still selling on Amazon, at the reduced price of 15.56.
From “When an ex-judge disappears, and a talkative jailbird shows up out of nowhere, the governor-elect's career could go up in smoke. Can Bowie Aloysia Dog (B.A.D.) root out the truth in time to save the inauguration?”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

OLD MURDERS NEVER DIE by Marja McGraw is a good reading choice for October’s longer nights in the run-up to Halloween. A couple of Los Angeles PIs come to Arizona on vacation, get lost in mountainous terrain, stumble upon an abandoned Old West town and end up being stalked by a mysterious cowboy on a black horse. Is he real or is he a ghost?
Marja writes two series, one involving a young, female private investigator named Sandi Webster, and one featuring a dead ringer for Humphrey Bogart named Chris Cross. The books are light with a touch of humor.

Born and raised in Southern California, Marja worked in both criminal and civil law enforcement and calls on her experience when writing.  She eventually relocated to Northern Nevada where she worked for the Nevada Department of Transportation.  Marja also did a stint in Oregon where she worked for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and owned her own business. She now lives in Arizona.

Here’s a list of her books:

Sandi Webster Mysteries
#1 - A Well-Kept Family Secret
#2 - Bubba's Ghost
#3 - Prudy's Back!
#4 - The Bogey Man
#5 - Old Murders Never Die

The Bogey Man Mysteries
#1 - Bogey Nights
#2 - Bogey's Ace in the Hole

Here’s my review.

Wings EPress, Paperback 2011
Wings EPress E-books, Kindle and Nook 2011
Book #5 in Sandi Webster Mysteries
Told from the first person viewpoint of PI Sandi Webster, this is a traditional mystery, with suspense building slowly, page by page. I spent an evening engrossed in the tale of a small town whose inhabitants were so terrified by a series of murders that they simply loaded their families into buckboards and fled the area.

Sandi Webster and Pete Goldberg, her partner/fiancé, plan a peaceful week camping on San Francisco Mountain in Coconino County. Looking for a place to spend the night, they park the Jeep, hike up over a rise and stumble upon a ghost town. Almost hidden by weeds and brush sits an abandoned house that looks like "the owner had simply walked away, leaving everything in place."

When Sandi and Pete head back to the Jeep to get a few things for the night, the Jeep’s doors are standing open, personal possessions are strewn on the ground, and there's a horse hoof print in the dirt. Spooked, they prepare to go back down the mountain but the Jeep won't start because the ignition relay is missing.

With Pete’s gun and Sandi’s dog -- half-wolf, half-golden retriever -- for protection, they decide the old house might be a safe place to bunk temporarily. Fortunately they had packed food, picnic supplies, bottled water and sleeping bags. After bringing those necessities into the house, they begin to clear out and clean up some living space.

They prowl, poke, scrub and polish to the point of exhaustion, getting a first-hand experience with living conditions of a hundred years earlier. In an enclosed space beneath a wardrobe they find log books kept by Sheriff Joseph Croft of Wolf Creek. The logs are dated 1879-1880.

When Sandi finds a woman’s wedding band in a dresser drawer she begins to feel like a trespasser. The house and the silent town have finally drawn her into something akin to “an episode of the Twilight Zone.” Determined to find out what happened, she and Pete begin to explore the town one house at a time, with the rider on the black horse tracking their every move.

The inevitable confrontation reveals the mysterious cowboy’s agenda. By the end of the book I felt as if I had explored the town alongside Sandi and Pete, and I understood the grief and fear that gripped the citizens of Wolf Creek. Wrapping up all the loose ends, the author reveals what happened at the time of the murders and long afterward.


Marja McGraw’s web site tag line is “A little humor, a little romance, a little murder!” The site includes her blog and book trailers. Be sure to check out her Vintage Movies page.

I don’t have the foggiest idea what this is all about, but I keep seeing it on other blogs, so here it is.

FTC has a new regulation which went into effect in December, 2009 which says, basically, "Amateur Bloggers to Disclose Freebies or Be Fined." Here's my required FTC Disclosure Notice regarding review copies of books obtained for this blog. No other compensation is accepted beyond review copies of books. When I do write a review, or opinion, the source of the book cited will be disclosed in the post in which the review/opinion appears. If you have questions, please feel free to contact me.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Meet Radine, author and handy-dandy cook

Radine Trees Nehring, who sets her novels and non-fiction articles in Arkansas, has collected at least 25 award certificates since 1992, beginning with an essay she entered in the Oklahoma Writers Federation annual contest.

She’s been honored with a key to one city, a key to a National Historic Site jail, two trophies … well, you get the picture. It’s no wonder that in 2011 the Arkansas Writers Conference chose her to be inducted into the Arkansas Writers Hall of Fame.

Well done, Radine, well done!

Radine is also a cook who does it the easy way. At least, that’s my impression after reading the handy-dandy recipes in JOURNEY TO DIE FOR, plus those on her web site. A recipe for No-thaw Hamburger Bake begins:Use approx. 1 lb lean hamburger, frozen in a lump, just as it came from the grocery store and went into your freezer.” Would you believe I have a lump of hamburger in my freezer, just waiting for a recipe like this to come along?

For that recipe and a handful of others, check out Radine’s web site:

JOURNEY TO DIE FOR by Radine Trees Nehring
Wolfmont Press, Paperback and Kindle 2010
Book # 6 in the To Die For series
Winner of 2010 Silver Falchion award at Killer Nashville

The gently told tales in this cozy series are set in the scenic Ozark Mountains and feature two older people for whom love is better the second time around. Carrie McCrite and Henry King, a retired policeman from Kansas City, have the best of intentions but still get caught up in other people’s problems, mayhem and murders.

This time Carrie and Henry board the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad’s historic excursion train for a trip to Van Buren, an Arkansas River town with a colorful past. Also on board is the host of a TV program, Exploring Arkansas, and his camera man. A three-hour stop in Van Buren is barely enough for Carrie, who wants to shop for antiques, and Henry, who wants to eat. They do both, but Carrie leaves Henry to linger over the “plate lunch” in a famous café while she hikes along the river. When he finally catches up with her, she has discovered the body of a train passenger snagged in trash at the water’s edge.

Henry's law enforcement instincts kick in; he secures the scene and calls the cops.When Henry admits being retired from the Kansas City Police Department. Sgt. Burke of the Van Buren PD tells them that the victim was stabbed but probably drowned. The big question: who was he, and how did someone manage to meet and kill him within such a short span of time? Back on the train there’s a stunning development. The victim boards the train and takes a seat in front of Carrie. Since no passenger appears to be missing, the train is cleared for its return journey.

Once home, Carrie and Henry regale their four closest friends with tales of their adventure. When they watch the TV program filmed of their trip, Carrie realizes that the “victim” who re-boarded for the return trip was not the same man she found in the river. Obviously, someone brought in a ringer.

Henry is drawn into the case when he learns the dead man’s billfold held a driver’s license with a Kansas City address. With Carrie by his side, Henry is soon back in his old stomping ground, where the couple act unofficially to help the KCPD unmask a surprisingly dangerous criminal enterprise.

My favorite line comes when Carrie helps prepare questions for interviewing a possible suspect. Capt. Boinevich of the KCPD says, “Hope for the moon and be glad when you get a pinch of stardust.”

My thanks to the author for a copy of this book, and for the recipes at the end. I’m getting ready to make Henry’s Chocolate Cake in a Mug.

Author photo from

I don’t have the foggiest idea what this is all about, but I keep seeing it on other blogs, so here it is.
FTC has a new regulation which went into effect in December, 2009 which says, basically, "Amateur Bloggers to Disclose Freebies or Be Fined." Here's my required FTC Disclosure Notice regarding review copies of books obtained for this blog. No other compensation is accepted beyond review copies of books. When I do write a review, or opinion, the source of the book cited will be disclosed in the post in which the review/opinion appears. If you have questions, please feel free to contact me.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Singapore Sling and a stroll through the 20th century

“The Singapore Slings at the Raffles Hotel are still delicious!” So says William S. Shepard, and he is an authority. In 1965, that historic city-state at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula was his first diplomatic assignment.

In the Dedication to his memoir, SUNSETS IN SINGAPORE, Shepard writes: “It is June, 2012, and Lois and I have just returned from a visit to Singapore, our first in many years. Now memories of long ago coexist with modern Singapore -- the world famous Botanical Gardens, and an amazing skyline, with tropical forests setting off the skyscrapers.”

He speaks of his lifelong affection for Singapore, and notes: “We made lasting friends, in particular because I also taught at the University of Singapore Law School, which is another story.”

SUNSETS IN SINGAPORE is strictly a memoir of his diplomatic service and it was an exotic journey. In his quarter-century as a diplomat he served in Saigon, Athens, Budapest, plus five tours of duty in Washington D.C., before retiring as Consul General in Bordeaux.

A Fulbright grantee and Harvard Law School graduate, William Shepard and his wife, Lois, live in Oxford, Maryland.

Reviewing William S. Shepard's memoir --

SUNSETS IN SINGAPORE A Foreign Service Memoir
Copyright 2001 as "Consular Tales" and in 2006 as Part One of "Diplomatic Tales"
Kindle Edition 2012

In his Preface, Shepard recalls: “Several years ago, a former classmate remembered at our law school reunion that I had told him when we were students that I was not going to practice law. Instead, I planned to enter the Foreign Service ‘because I didn't want to wake up one morning late in life and wonder what seeing the sunset in Singapore would have been like.’”

He need not have worried. Shepard’s stroll down memory lane is a walk through 20th century history for readers. His career in the Foreign Service of the United States included service in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest, Athens and Bordeaux, in addition to five Washington tours of duty.

His duties thrust him into the thick of international crises: The Third Operations Center Task Force when terrorists from the Japanese Red Army took over the Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; The Cyprus Task Force in the Johnson administration; The Pueblo Task Force when North Korea seized the USS Pueblo in 1968.

Chapter Four on Security and Terrorism addresses problems and precautions for Americans abroad, a concern that was “almost an afterthought” when he joined the Foreign Service but one that takes on a wrenching importance today. Describing his security measures, Shepard notes that “A little paranoia can be a healthy trait now and then.” Especially fascinating to me are the chapters on Shepard’s service in Vietnam and in Hungary.

Not all of a diplomat’s duties are grim. Some days are spent on mundane matters and social activities. In an interview with Joanne Troppello on her blog, The Mustard Seed, Shepard notes: “The word ‘diplomacy’ is itself instructive. It means ‘having two eyes,’ one for watching the capital which sent you, and the other for observing the capital where you are serving.”

Shepard laces his memoir with humor. He recalls his armored car in Bordeaux, so heavily plated that when the police tried to tow it out of a parking zone the back of the police tow truck collapsed, much to the amusement of an audience from a nearby cafe.

He also has an anecdote about a field trip to Miskole, Hungary during Iron Curtain days, when he picked up a tail by a Hungarian secret police car. It was no cause for alarm. He says they were “bored fellows just doing a routine job ... We used to pack sandwiches for them.”

One of my favorite Singapore anecdotes is of Shepard's meeting with Bill Bailey. Yes, THAT Bill Bailey, who kept the Coconut Grove Bar, was imprisoned during the Japanese occupation of Singapore, and never did go home to the United States.

A prize winning mystery writer, Shepard also created a new genre, the diplomatic mystery, now comprising four novels whose plots are set in American Embassies overseas. These books explore his rich, insider background in the world of high stakes diplomacy and government.

This Foreign Service memoir has a companion Ebook, "Southeast Asian Quartet: Robbie Cutler Stories." This is, perhaps, the Southeast Asia of fiction. Take a look at

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Retirement - throwing away the alarm clock

Baby Boomer Mysteries Press, Paperback 2009
Kindle and Nook e-book 2011
Book #1 in the Baby Boomer series

What do you do after you throw away the alarm clock, after all those years of living by the clock and the calendar? Where do you go if you aren’t going to work? RETIREMENT CAN BE MURDER is a  cozy with humor and a bit of an edge. It's a light-hearted look at a serious subject: the first wave of what will be a tsunami of Baby Boomers facing retirement.

Carol and Jim Andrews, married for 36 years, live in a small Connecticut town that’s an easy train commute to New York City, where Jim works. He gets up at five o’clock in the morning to watch The Weather Channel and goes through obsessive coupon-clipping phases, but those are minor complications in a happy marriage. A real complication is Jim’s decision to retire. Carol imagines him hanging around the house 24/7, sitting in his recliner and clutching the TV remote while his mind turns to mush.

To ward off that disaster she maneuvers him into an appointment with a retirement coach, Dr. Davis Rhodes. Jim is intrigued but apparently the coach is not all he appears to be. When Jim shows up to confront him, he finds the coach dead. To say that it puts Jim in an awkward situation is an understatement.

Adding to the general confusion is the return of Carol and Jim’s daughter, Jenny, who has fled L.A. and her live-in lover and moved back home. It so happens that one of Jenny’s high school friends, Mark Anderson, is now a cop, romantically unattached, and assigned to the Rhodes investigation.

Reading this book is like enjoying a leisurely, gossipy luncheon with your best friends. Carol’s confidantes are Mary Alice, a veteran nurse; Nancy, a top-notch realtor; and Claire, married to a busy attorney. The four women are a modern menopausal version of the Three Musketeers: One for all, all for one. Whatever the problem, they rally around with loads of takeout food and unconditional moral support. Carol also has two canine confidants: her English cocker spaniels, Ethel and Lucy.

Carol is a corker. She has spent 36 years finessing Jim into and out of situations and now, fearful that he may be accused of murder, she fantasizes coming to his rescue. One scenario:

“At the very last minute, right before the jury was certain to find him guilty, I rushed into the courtroom … and dramatically announced to the judge, ‘Release this prisoner, Your Honor. I have irrefutable evidence that Mr. Andrews did not commit any crime.” Jim burst into tears. Of course. ‘Honey, I knew you’d save me!’”

When it becomes evident that somebody is trying to frame Jim for murder, Carol and her friends turn their talents into a real investigation.

The author has thought of everything, including an easy-peasy, handy-dandy Ice Cream Bread recipe at the end.

My thanks to the author for a review copy of this book.

About Susan Santangelo – from the back of the book:
An early member of the Baby Boomer generation, Susan Santangelo has been a feature writer, drama critic and editor for daily and weekly newspapers and magazines in the New York metropolitan area, including a stint at Cosmopolitan. A seasoned public relations and marketing professional, she produced special events for Carnegie Hall’s centennial. Susan is a member of Sisters in Crime and the Cape Cod Writers’ Center, and divides her time between the Connecticut shoreline and Cape Cod, MA. She shares her life with Her Personal Beloved, husband Joe, and three English Cockers: Tillie, Tucker and Lucy.

A portion of the proceeds from Retirement Can Be Murder will be donated to the Breast Cancer Survival Center (, a non-profit organization Susan founded in 1999 after being diagnosed with cancer herself.

Susan loves to hear from readers. Contact her at E-mail her and share your retirement stories.
End Quote

How Baby Boomer Mysteries Press came to be: an excerpt of Susan’s interview by Jean Henry Mead on the Mysterious People blog.

Q: Susan, what prompted your decision to become an indie writer?

I queried several top agents in New York with my first Baby Boomer mystery, Retirement Can Be Murder. Three of them absolutely loved it, but were unsure as to whether there was a market for it. As one of the 78.2 million Baby Boomers myself, I knew there was a market. So I decided to heed the advice of the Books Editor of our daily paper -- if you're a new author, relatively unknown, take the leap of faith and do it yourself. I am blessed to live on Cape Cod, which has a wealth of talented artists and writers. Some of these folks and I now collaborate as Baby Boomer Mysteries Press. It's a win-win for all of us.

The full interview is at

I don’t have the foggiest idea what this is all about, but I keep seeing it on other blogs, so here it is.

FTC Disclosure Notice
FTC has a new regulation which went into effect in December, 2009 which says, basically, "Amateur Bloggers to Disclose Freebies or Be Fined." Here's my required FTC Disclosure Notice regarding review copies of books obtained for this blog. No other compensation is accepted beyond review copies of books. When I do write a review, or opinion, the source of the book cited will be disclosed in the post in which the review/opinion appears. If you have questions, please feel free to contact me.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Tom Sawyer, MSW, JFK, What If and Who Knew ...?

 … Or -- How Jessica Fletcher almost solved the Murder of the Century. It happens in MURDER SHE WROTE, Season 9, Episode 13 entitled “Dead Eye.”

Jessica is in Miami for a writers conference when the remains of Bernie Callan, a private eye missing since President John F. Kennedy’s assassination 30 years earlier, are found in a drain pipe in nearby Coral City.

Those converging on Coral City include Callan’s daughter, now a Denver attorney, and Callan’s former partner, PI Charlie Garrett from Chicago. At issue are some incriminating photographs taken by Callan before the assassination. People on both sides of the law will stop at nothing to lay hands on those photos.

That’s the story of “Dead Eye,” which aired on Feb. 7, 1993. How it came to be and what it led to is another story, one Tom Sawyer spells out in his not-yet-published memoir which he has titled WHO KNEW … ?

If you want to know how TV programs are made and unmade, and how novels get from here to there, this excerpt is for you. I have Sawyer’s permission to share it.

Excerpt from Thomas B. Sawyer’s not-yet-published memoir, WHO KNEW … ?.

The idea for what would eventually become my first novel came just about as spontaneously as the BARNEY MOON project, JACK, and others – a facility which by that time I was beginning to appreciate as one more fortunate life-pattern. Asked to pitch episode ideas for a new, not yet on-air series, I found myself once again at Universal Studios, where the show’s co-executive producer, respected veteran Bill Sackheim, welcomed me warmly and quickly explained that GIDEON OLIVER was to be part of an ABC ‘Mystery Wheel,’ rotating with two other whodunit series, each airing a ninety-minute movie every third week (the others were the already long-running COLUMBO, and the more recent B. L. STRYKER).

Based on a character created by novelist Aaron Elkins, and portrayed by the imposing Louis Gossett, Jr., Gideon Oliver was a Columbia University Professor of Anthropology who solved murders. Sackheim offered that he hoped to put me into work on a script ASAP.

“…And, since we have a script in its final editorial stages just now, that we plan to shoot in the southern Utah mountains, around Moab, it’d be great for us, budgetwise, if you can come up with one we could do there simultaneously. Matter of fact, my co-exec, Dick Wolf, is on location just now in Mexico where we’re shooting show number three, and we need a script from you so badly that – well, I’m not gonna let you out of here until we’ve got a story.”
So, pacing around Bill’s office, I asked questions about various series-and-character nuances – did Gideon drive, did he have an assistant, any tics or phobias? And when he started pacing, too, tossing out answers, I stretched out on his sofa, hands behind my head – and began articulating a what-if – without much editing – almost as it was forming:

“Okay, there’s this dig taking place in those mountains, some sort of ancient burial chamber. And Gideon Oliver’s called in because there are a bunch of really old skeletons in there – maybe something he’s an expert about – except one of ‘em isn’t old. It’s got a bullet in its wingbone, say – and – and these bozos start coming out of the woodwork – and killing people – and going after Gideon. Because that skeleton – it’s connected to the JFK Assassination – to some hidden truth about it? And Gideon’s about to solve what really happened that day in Dallas---

Which was as far as I got. “Great. I love it. Let’s go with that.”

Heading home a few minutes later, I began thinking about what I’d just sold. And while I had thus far not a single thought, beyond my pitch, about how to tell the story, it excited me, the best part being a chance to deal with Jack Kennedy’s murder in a fiction piece – a crime that I had never for a minute believed was the work of a single gunman. It became more intriguing when I began playing with the notion of just who the modern-day skeleton had been, and what he might have had on whoever was behind the JFK Plot that was serious enough to get this fellow killed back in 1963.

I suppose my short-lived PI, Charlie Moon was still near my thought-surface, because by the time I got home my dead-guy had taken the form of a similarly seedy investigator. This one was on a domestic surveillance job that had taken him to Texas in November 1963, where he’d shot clandestine evidence photos of his client’s adulterous wife and her cowboy lover. And several of those snapshots inadvertently contained some sort of proof that Lee Harvey Oswald had not acted alone. I was stoked by the possibilities, and eagerly began outlining the teleplay.

Then, a few days later, I received an odd phone call from Sackheim. He seemed tentative, ill-at-ease: “So – how’re you coming with the story…?”

I told him I was just getting into it, laying out the overall shape. “It feels good...” It also felt like one of those next-shoe-about-to-drop conversations. “Is there a problem?” 

Bill’s response came after a brief, awkward silence: “Tom, the thing is, we might have to shitcan it.” Then, he quickly added: “But if that happens we’ll work out a different premise for you to--- Listen, before you do any more work on it, why don’t you come in tomorrow first-thing, and talk me through your story – you know, in detail? And then we’ll see.”

Weird. I had never before encountered such a request, not one put in that way, or even close. The following morning at the studio, Bill greeted me with the news that we weren’t going to do the notion I’d sold him. “But don’t worry, you’ll get your story money. So – let’s get going on another one. How about…?” And an hour later, with a lot of plot-suggestions from Sackheim, we’d hammered out a story which was okay, though not as interesting as the first one.

I was never told the reason for the cancellation, nor did I press the obviously embarrassed Sackheim for it. Maybe it’s the conspiracy-nut in me, but I’ve always suspected that the topic had frightened someone at ABC, so they told Bill to kill it, and that his first brief phone call was an attempt by him to buy time in hope that he might appeal the decision to a higher-up at the network, and/or maybe between us find a twist that would cause them to change their minds.

I had come away from the experience a bit wiser – and, far better, I had the intriguing notion that what I’d sold to Bill Sackheim that day several months earlier was – maybe – the germ of a pretty good idea for a novel.

A form I’d yet to try, though it was getting to be that time. And tantalizingly, even at that early thinking-about-it stage, it presented a nagging, major challenge that, with my customary optimism I figured would quickly sort itself out.

It did not. Until one day several years hence when, quite by accident, I saw how another writer had solved a similar problem.

I continued to write TV episodes on a freelance basis, mostly for MURDER, SHE WROTE, but with an occasional script for such shows as SCARECROW & MRS. KING, ZORRO, and others. But again, on the seems-like-a-good-idea-front, my attempt at a first novel was stalled at the outline-stage, presenting a barrier I was finding insurmountable and maddening: how to tell the story without killing off my favorite character within the first few chapters.

In laying out THE SIXTEENTH MAN, based on the GIDEON OLIVER premise that had been axed by ABC, my present-day protagonist would be a young archaeologist, Matt Packard. He discovers the burial chamber full of ancient skeletons, plus the more recent one which turns out to be that of a Reno PI who in late 1963 had the key to who really killed JFK, and had vanished along with his secret. As mentioned, with my original pitch to Bill Sackheim, the ‘what-if’ was – what kind of people would suddenly emerge, willing to kill in order to conceal the truth about that long-ago conspiracy?

Obviously, Packard would carry the bulk of the story. But if, as logic dictated, I wrote the piece in linear sequence starting in 1963 and then taking it to present-day I’d have no choice but to quickly lose the player who, not surprisingly given my soft spot for rascals, had quickly emerged as the most fun: PI Charlie Callan. It just didn’t seem right to dump him so soon. So, stymied – maybe permanently – and simultaneously beyond my eyeballs juggling other projects, including JACK and of course MSW, after struggling for several weeks, with regret but still fascinated by the problem, I temporarily laid the project aside.

Early in that first season as Showrunner, Angela, Bruce and I agreed that too many recent episodes had involved extensive, rather tedious backstories. So I came up with several premises that would take place mostly-to-entirely in the present and, with Bruce at my side in his sister’s dressing-room/trailer outside the Cabot Cove soundstage, I ran them past Angie and her husband, Peter. She didn’t much care for any of them, and asked if I had any others.

I did not. But the next thing that popped into my head was a sudden vision – a way to write a very abbreviated version of my GIDEON OLIVER/JFK stalled novel as a MURDER, SHE WROTE episode. And impulsively, I offered that yes, I did have one. “But you probably won’t like it…” I quickly, waggishly added: “... because it’s got the mother of all backstories.”

Which of course hooked her, as well as Bruce and Peter. Angela grinned: “Let’s hear it.”

Continuing on my mini-roll, and giggling inwardly, I delivered part two of my tease. “Okay, let me give you the TV GUIDE logline: ‘Jessica Fletcher solves The Murder of the Century – almost…’” After a suitably dramatic pause, I admitted that the murder case was the JFK assassination. All of them loved it, and that was that – they needed no further details. 

As I began outlining my story, I figured it would be cool to bring in Jerry Orbach to once again portray Harry McGraw. So I phoned him at his apartment in Manhattan to check on his availability and learned to my disappointment, but delight for Jerry, that he couldn’t do it: “I just signed on to co-star on LAW & ORDER.”

So, in writing the episode, titled DEAD EYE, I created a new PI character not unlike the seedy, retro McGraw: Charlie Garrett. We cast the witty M.A.S.H. veteran Wayne Rogers in the role, and had great fun over the next five years employing him as Jessica’s recurring, exasperating bullshitter pal. A joy to work with, Wayne, like Angie, always knew exactly where the jokes were. He also shared my affection for con artists, admitting that like me he felt more than a little of it in himself. I was proud of DEAD EYE, pleased with the way it turned out to be an atypical but satisfying MSW episode.

The challenge of how to approach my mystery-thriller novel about the JFK assassination, telling two stories separated by decades without killing off my most entertaining character near the top, was solved for me unexpectedly – and with forehead-slap immediacy – early in 1996, by Susan Isaacs.

One of my favorite authors since her delightfully funny novel (and screenplay), COMPROMISING POSITIONS, Ms. Isaacs had just published a novel titled LILY WHITE. Another first-rate read, in this one Ms. Isaacs told parallel stories taking place thirty years apart.

She accomplished this by employing a simple, hardly original but totally effective device. Ms. Isaacs had laid out her two yarns in alternating chapters, employing a different, distinctive typeface for each thread. Bingo! I saw within a few pages that she’d given me the key to keeping my 1963 Reno PI alive until the end, while still telling my archaeologist’s tale in present-time.

Thus, I eagerly began outlining THE SIXTEENTH MAN.

© 2010-2012 Thomas B. Sawyer ... End Quote

Novelist, screenwriter, playwright, Tom Sawyer was Head Writer/Showrunner of the classic CBS series, Murder, She Wrote, for which he wrote 24 episodes. Edgar & Emmy-nominated, Tom has written 9 TV series pilots, 100 episodes - both comedy and drama. He has been Head Writer/Showrunner or Producer/Story Editor on 15 network TV series.
His web site is at:

You can read an excerpt from THE SIXTEENTH MAN on Google Books at

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Another elegant mystery from Carolyn Hart

Oklahoma writer Carolyn Hart never disappoints. Her writing is elegant, her plotting is careful, and she sets many of her books in Oklahoma. She is a former newspaper reporter and her eye for detail is always evident.

My favorite of all her books is LETTER FROM HOME, with parallel stories set during World War II and present time. It’s a little gem.

Her newest mystery, WHAT THE CAT SAW, has just been published, and while it’s not a cat story as such, it does feature an interesting cat.

Meet Jugs, a brown tabby with oversized ears. Mostly he does cat things -- eats, sleeps, disappears through the cat door when he wants to go outside for a bit of fresh air. He's a charmer but he doesn’t hijack the story. He’s just there, being a cat. The difference is that Nela Farley, the protagonist of WHAT THE CAT SAW, reads his mind, and an interesting little mind it is.

When Nela arrives in the small Oklahoma town of Craddock she’s running away from her shambles of a life in California. She has lost her job and she has lost her fiancé to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Her sister, Chloe, needs someone to fill in for her own job while she and her boyfriend take a week’s free vacation in Tahiti. Nela is grateful for the diversion.

She gets more than she bargained for – a cat whose thoughts alert her to a murder made to look like an accident, a fabulous necklace that disappears, reappears and disappears again, and a red-headed reporter who reminds her of old-time movie star Van Johnson.

WHAT THE CAT SAW might be considered a variation on the traditional locked room mystery. Much of the action takes place in the offices and on the grounds of Haklo, a philanthropic foundation headed by the founder’s great-granddaughter, Blythe Webster. It’s a family enterprise, with succeeding generations piling up money in banking, cattle ranching and oilfield wildcatting.

Chloe’s apartment, temporarily Nela’s, is on the top floor of a two-story garage behind the Webster mansion. The apartment was formerly occupied by the late CEO of Haklo, who died from a fall down the stairs and left behind her beloved cat, Jugs. Nela picks up the cat’s memory that his mistress stepped on a skateboard on one of the steps.

Nela has barely unpacked before an intruder breaks in. After scaring him, or her, away by calling the police, she finds that the intruder completely ignored a fabulous diamond necklace tucked into a purse sitting in plain sight.

Thus begins Nela’s introduction to Haklo Foundation, an organization beset by arson, vandalism, destruction of artifacts, obscene material mailed on foundation letterhead – and a missing necklace. Unhampered by local loyalties, Nela suspects everyone on the Haklo staff and quietly begins to check them out. Her every move is tracked by a suspicious cop and an inquisitive reporter.

Carolyn Hart’s elegant writing shines in this tightly plotted mystery. There are many characters but Hart is careful to develop each one in memorable fashion. Cat owners will have no problem with the role Jugs plays. As has been said, cats were goddesses in ancient times and they have never let us forget it.

For all the news about Carolyn and her books, go to her web site: